Russia-Africa: A Widening Gap

The Kremlin
The Kremlin

During the bipolarity of the Cold War, the USSR maintained ideological and economic relations with one part of the African continent. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Soviet Union their connection has distended, albeit not as much as is sometimes presumed.

It is hard to agree with the international relations experts who argue that the Russo-Africa relationship is close-to nonexistent. How can one even make such a statement considering that the grandfather of Russia’s greatest poet and founder of the language proper, Alexander Pushkin was African? It is believed that he was born in the region of Lake Chad, as was highlighted by Dieudonné Gnammankou’s essay Abraham Hanibal, Pushkin’s black grandfather. Today nobody contests this theory.

The relations – more ideological than cultural – between the two heterogeneous giants, that is the Soviet Union and Africa, have left deep traces that still prevail twenty years after the dissolution of the former. “70,000 Africans graduated from USSR colleges,” wrote Alexeï Mikhaïlovitch Vassilliev in an op-ed in Jeune Afrique, in November 2009. It was published in the event of the 15th anniversary of the creation of the Institute of African Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, where Vassiliev has been the director for the past 20 years.

According to legend the institute was created on orders by Krushchev after having met the renowned American black-rights activist W.E Burghardt Du Bois. Since then, the institute has become one of the world’s largest African institutes. Although it doesn’t have the same means at its disposal as it did during the Soviet era,  the last time I visited the institute in April 2010, it had 120 scientists working in fifty-something laboratories that specialise in development, economics, sociology, ethnology, history, etc.

New allies The institute houses in a sumptuous Venetian-style building that was built before the revolution by a rich aristocrat. Still to this day, the institute is part of the very influential Russian Academy of Sciences and continues to exert a non-negligible political authority. In fact, its director is, as a simple consequence of his prerogatives, the “Russian president’s personal ambassador to the Heads of African states”.

Even though Africa is of little interest to Putin and Medvedev, who have cut trips to the continent to almost zero, it is not the Kremlin but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is in charge of Russia’s Africa policy. The Africa department takes up an entire floor of the ministry, in a sky-scraper that was ordered by Stalin to compete with New York, on Smolensk square in the heart of Moscow. Supervising the Africa-Middle East division is Deputy Minister Alexander Saltanov. I am received by the head of relations with Sub-Saharan Africa, Andreï Kemarski, who speaks perfect Portuguese and used to be the Russian ambassador to Angola.

“In comparison to other great Western powers we have no colonial history,” he explains. “Our first relations with the continent started after the installation of the Soviet regime, which supported the anti-colonial movements and the African independence movements. Therefore, our relations were first and foremost ideological, and it was from there that we were later able to establish economic ties. Since the end of communism in Russia, we have sought to expand our scope by approaching countries like Malawi and Côte d’Ivoire, with whom we had never had any relationship. We perceive a stronger demand by the African states themselves, if only as a way of counter balancing the former colonial powers and, today, also China.”

Russia does not have the same interests in Africa as China does, mainly thanks to its own natural resources. But that does not stop the big Russian power companies like Lukoil (oil), Gazprom (gas), Rosatom (nuclear) form increasing their activities on the continent. Nor does it stop mining companies from operating some very profitable deposits, like bauxite in Guinea and Nigeria, nickel in Botswana, vanadium in South Africa, diamonds in Angola, etc.

Exchange Notwithstanding, Russian FDI in Africa remain derisory compared to China – $4m against$14m (according to the latest available statistics, from 2008). When it comes to military cooperation – supply of war material more precisely – the numbers are hard to come by. Indeed, Russian authorities prefer to highlight their involvement in peace-keeping operations, police squad training and combating piracy.

The fact remains that the Russian federation has reduced the Soviet canopy considerably. Even though it has knotted new relations with some countries – oil prospection missions in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, for instance – it has closed most of its cultural centres, all but three or four, and reshuffled its diplomatic services in thirty-something embassies.

“For example we have tied our Embassy in Angola with the embassy in São Tomé e Príncipe”, says Andreï Kemarski, who nevertheless insists on the fact that Russia keeps on being very attractive. “In Moscow we have more than 30 African diplomatic missions, and we continue to award more than 800 higher education scholarships. Indeed, we are not a big international aid provider, but we assist significantly in terms of economic and social development through the United Nations programmes. Another dimension is that we have erased the debt of many poor countries, dating since the times of the USSR. In the last ten years we have abandoned $20bn in debt revenue.”

A minor but revealing detail: Russian aviation company Aeroflot has conserved but one layover in North Africa – Cairo – and one in Sub-Saharan Africa – Luanda. On the other hand the company has established a regular line with Nice on the French Riviera. This is most symptomatic of the interest of the “new Russia”.

*Jean-Louis Gouraud is a journalist, editor and writer.